Risky Business: The Evolution of Dangerous Behavior


How many people think those guys are nuts? And how many want to go do all that stuff
right now? Yeah, there’s a couple of us in here. So by point of introduction, uh, indulge me
in a bit of biography. I jumped at this panel. I’ve been away from the World Science Festival
for a couple of years, but when they told me the title of this one, I was all in because
this is my happy place. Um, when I was a boy, my dad was a skydiver
and a rock climber and a, and a skier. And so I grew up on drop zones watching, looking
up into the air for his red and black canopy. He met my stepmom there. And so when I was 18, one of the first things
I did was to go learn how to do this. This is the bridge where they invented bungee
jumping in New Zealand. We got to explore why countries like that
seem to, you know, almost breed the idea of extreme adventure. And this is, uh, doing some ice climbing up
in Chamonix. I am a dilettante though in this extreme world
compared to a few of our guests who we’re going to bring up and I’m hoping they can
help me understand myself. Was this nature or nurture? Do I blame my old man for this craziness? Uh, or was it just the cues I got growing
up out there? Let’s find out from people who know a lot
about this world. Our first participant studies fear, actually
scanning the brains of extreme risk takers and even psychopaths to find out something
about the rest of us. An associate professor of psychology and neuroscience
at Georgetown University, please welcome Abigail Marsh. Hey Abby, welcome. Our next participant studies what motivates
extreme risk takers and has been known to take a few herself on a pair of skis up in
British Columbia. Please welcome Cynthia Thompson,
Hi Cynthia. Also joining us now, the daredevil doctor,
an orthopedic sports and trauma surgeon at the University of Colorado. He’s the guy BASE jumping off the sides of
cliffs in that video, please welcome Omer Mei-Dan. Good to see you, Omer. And finally a prominent author and leading
researcher into the evolutionary origins of our behavior, including risk-taking, professor
of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University, president of the Evolution Institute. Please welcome David Sloan Wilson. Great to have all of you here. This is going to be fun. And let’s just start and go down the line
and just sort of set the definitions, uh Abigail, of risk. What does that mean to you? Uh, risk is anything that could have worse
consequences than good consequences I think. But the definition depends on who you are
and what you think is dangerous for you personally. Right, right. Uh, Cynthia it, I suppose it is, it is. It is a very, a, a risk is in the eye of the
beholder, right? Yes. Uh, when I’ve studied athletes, um, some people
doing certain types of activities, which most people would consider risky, they don’t consider
them risky just because they have practiced it or a certain level of ability. So I think it’s, yeah, it’s a huge range. Right. Right. Omer you, you, were you risky from toddling
or what, did this come over life? Should ask my mom. We should go back first to your intro instead
of who should I blame or blaming my dad, I would say, how can I thank my dad? Thank my dad, right. Yeah, exactly. For having these type of genes in me so I
can enjoy these type of things. Right? Right, right. And David, you have an interesting perspective
just as an evolutionary scientist. Right, I study risk taking in nonhuman species
such as fish and birds and things like that. And do you know, they also have individual
differences. And the main point I’d like to make from the
beginning is that it’s hard to know what’s more impressive, the individual differences
or the flexibility in each and every one of us to take risks under some circumstances. Right, little acts of bravery that aren’t
going to make the news but ultimately differentiate, right? Or even rising to the occasion and great acts
of braveries in people that you would never expect. Right. Right. And is there a line between, you know, what
is the line between ordinary acceptable risk and foolish risk? Risk boils down to your experience, right? Each one of us can, if you even look at sports
which are more common like surfing, you can go surf and you can surf um, a two or three
feet wave at the beach and it’s going to be quite easy and if, you’re going to fall off
your board, if you even gonna manage to stand up. Nothing’s going to happen to you. Maybe you’re going to scratch the sand a little
bit, but then go and surf Mavericks with, you know, 40 feet waves that every small mistake
can result in significant consequences, even fatality. That’s a different type of risk and we talking
about the exact same sport. So it’s sometimes hard to know to understand
that from the outside because when you see someone skydiving or BASE jumping for someone
who doesn’t do these types of sports, it all looks crazy, but it’s not really, right? If you have gone through the right training
and understanding and you know exactly what you are doing, it may look too risky for you,
but it’s not that you’re not aware that this is a risk, right? Just that you know how to handle it well,
And if what you’re doing bring you to great joy or something else of huge value, then
maybe whatever level of risk you’re facing is worth it and you wouldn’t consider it risky. Right. Right. As we get into the program deeper, I want
to get into why those risk rewards things happen, you know, centuries ago the person
who went over the next hill was revered by the tribe for certain reasons. Survival depended on it. Now it’s like getting a Red Bull contract
is, you know, the incentive for, for some, but we have some interesting, uh, video of
a, of a baby cliff, a study that was done. Uh, I guess, I don’t know when time-space,
but you set up this a sort of virtual cliff for an infant and it’s safe. There’s Plexiglass there. She’s not going to tumble over. But what I think they found was, um, there’s
something innate that makes us pull back from a situation even when you don’t even have
depth perception yet. David, talk about how risk changes over life. Like how much caution we’re born with and
or lack of. Well, one point to make is that it’s not true
that babies are blank slates and they have to learn everything from their experience. And so, uh, we’re barn packed with all kinds
of psychological modules basically, so it’s not so much of a, um, surprising, at least
in retrospect that a very small infant would do something sensible like, like, um, uh,
pull back from cliffs. In fact, you can see, you can see other cultures
and it’s almost the norm in other in, in traditional cultures for very small children to not be
supervised the way we think of supervising our children, they’re, they’re by the campfire,
they’re playing with sharp objects. And even in those New Guinean tribes where
they have tree houses way the hell up, there was little kids, not much older than that
that are just wandering around. And there’s big gaps in the floor and stuff
like that and it seems inconceivable to us but the parents are not like helicopter moms
and, and dads and so they, they learn and actually some of them might just die. But uh, but uh, that’s, that’s the way it
is. And we were saying before
That’s free-range parenting. In the, uh, in the rehearsal someone was saying,
watching that film, I’ll bet there’s some kids that actually go straight over that cliff. Yeah, exactly. Yeah somebody has a toddler out there that,
that kid is over the cliff right there. But you talk about adolescence as being a
particular phase of human life where you’re figuring out where the boundaries are, right? Yeah. I think when we think of risk as an adaptive
strategy there’s merit under some circumstances and that makes a ton of sense, especially
in traditional cultures which are much more about survival than our affluent societies. And to give two examples, adolescence is a
time when you have to establish your adult status. And so there is a point, a time in which risk
taking might be narrative, but there’s another context, back in childhood something called
attachment theory, which I’ll bet some people in the audience are familiar with that parenting
can be your, your caretaking environment might be safe and secure or not. And in a safe and secure caregiving environment
the right strategy for a kid is to be exploratory, but I’ll check back to the caregiver knowing
that that’s always safe and secure. If your caregiving environment is more insecure
than that there’s two strategies in children. One is, one is a clinging strategy, so basically
you don’t let the parent out of your sight. The other is a strategy of like premature
fledging and those kids, you know you’re not going to get support from your caregiver and
so you’re kind of out the door. And those would be the kids that we would
think of as extreme risk-takers. Why? It’s because they have to go it alone. And so these are some of the situational differences,
I think. Which call for either safe or risky strategies,
depending upon the, the attached benefits. You can’t ever talk about risky behaviors
as costly and make sense of it without knowing what the benefits are that are associated
with it because it’s the cost benefit ratio that’s needed to make sense of however you
behave. Right. Cynthia, when you started into this field
and were obsessed, did it come from your own skiing life? What was it about this set of folks that,
that fascinated you? I actually spent some time in between degrees
in the Canadian Rockies and I met a number of athletes there who had, had been into a
lot of various risk taking behavior in their youth and then they moved to a mountain town,
they found the sport, whether it be ice climbing, skiing, paragliding, et cetera. And that then was the focus of their passion
and they, they stopped or you know, decreased their other risk taking behaviors because
that became the outlet. So I was motivated to study this, um, out
of the, just the question, can sport serve as an alternative outlet for these same types
of risk, um, drives. Gambling addictions and those sorts of things? All of those, yeah. Right, right. And Abigail, I understand your, you know,
draw to this field came from a couple personal stories. Yeah, that’s true. So the, one of the populations I study is
people who, uh, risk undergoing surgery so they can donate a kidney to a stranger, um,
which most people would view as an unacceptable risk, but for them seems like the most obvious
thing in the world. Um, and one of the reasons I’m interested
in this, um, population is because my life was saved by an altruistic stranger when I
was a teenager. Uh, and I was in a car accident and I actually
driving over a freeway, swerved to avoid hitting a dog, which you shouldn’t do, just, you have
to hit it, uh, because what happens when you swerve to avoid an animal is what happened
to me, which was my car spun out across the freeway and I ended up in the fast lane of
the freeway on an overpass with no shoulders facing backward into the oncoming traffic. And then my engine died and I was 100% sure
that I was going to die too. I had no phone. It was the 90s, um, there was no shoulders
to escape onto. I really didn’t know what to do. Um, and then suddenly a stranger appeared
next to the passenger side car of my window, who I later figured out had pulled over on
the opposite side of the freeway and ran across five or six lanes of freeway traffic and the
dark to reach me. Uh, and then he got my car up and running
again, got me back across the road and then he disappeared. So I’d never had the opportunity to ask him
why he did what he did. Um, but I’ve been curious to, um, study similar
populations ever since. We’re going to get into that field a little
bit later with another special guest, uh, who’s joining us as well. But Omer I’m just curious about, do you have
family? Do you have uh, children? Three kids. Three kids? Did becoming a father alter your definition
of risk? I’m not sure that it altered the definition
of risk. It definitely changed me a little bit. Um, and I would still do the same type of
sports and being engaged with these on a regular basis, but maybe I will mitigate some of these
sports in terms of the, the level of risk I would take. But nowadays I can do that with them and obviously
they are all involved in extreme sports themselves and they are enjoying it too. So I think it goes back to what you guys discussed
before about the culture aspect because we can have two discussion over here, but the
exact same discussion can be um, uh, done elsewhere and going to go to the, to a complete
different level with regard to what you are doing and what is acceptable. If we go back to the bungee jumping that you
showed before. So bungee jumping was actually invented in
Pentecost, in Vanuatu, in the Pacific. And they are doing over there at the age of
12 or 13, it is some sort of a maturity ceremony and everybody have to do it. And then they do not do that with a proper
rope, they do it with roots. Vines. Yeah. And people die there on a regular basis. But this is what they do and it’s culturally
completely acceptable, right? And not something we’re going to be acceptable
over here in Manhattan. So these are things that we need to understand. We’re not all the same, we are all judging
the thing and judging these type of sports by the same point of view. And it’s important to understand that to begin
with, Right. But it, but somewhere in there, the common
thread is somebody whose, whose red line is out here as opposed to here. And we kind of want to figure that out as,
as we can use, let’s use some examples. How many of you have heard of Alex Honnold? This movie? The, Free Solo just won the Academy Award
for best documentary. He is this other worldly human, a rock climber,
American rock climber, a free soloist, which if you don’t know is these are guys who climb
without ropes. So one false move, one slip and you are dead. And he famously climbed El Capitan. I mean, he is such a superstar in this field. This is a climb 3000 foot, a sheer rock wall
there in Yosemite Valley. And it sometimes take some, you know, professional
climbers days or even weeks to do it. He set a record in under four hours scrambling
up this and as you see in the movie, so brilliantly it, it, he’s not a, some devil may care, you
know, nihilist. He doesn’t, he, he very much loves life. He has, uh, a romantic interest in the film
that grounds him in many ways, but, um, but what he does, it defies most logic for the
rest of us. So I’m just going to go down the list and
say, is he crazy? How is Alex Honnold different from the rest
of us? Not just, uh, you know, physiologically, psychologically? Um, my guess is uh, and what’s interesting
is that we have done, scientists have done brain scans on him to see if the structures
of the brain that support and coordinate the experience of fear are somehow, um, gone or
not working in him. And that’s not true at all. Um, and what’s interesting is in the movie
he talks, uh, quite a bit about his experiences of fear as a child. He uses words like fear and terrified frequently
in his, um, his recent Ted talk. So it’s not that he’s not capable of fear,
um, but clearly what he finds rewarding about climbing, it’s something that gives him such
joy and such pleasure that it’s worth it to him to take the time and effort to get to
the place where he could do the things he does. So I don’t, I, you know, I don’t think it’s
crazy at all. I think for him that calculus is worth it. That’s the equivalent of us walking to the
store or something like that. What do you, what do you think, Cynthia? Well, and they don’t show this as, as much
in the movie, but he spent two years preparing for that, um, climb and, and what a lot of
athletes that are doing these activities, they’re, they’re, they’ve, they’re, they’re
very skilled and, um, they’ve essentially, you know, mastered what they’re doing. And so they have a lot of confidence in their
abilities. And I think that then allows them to, you
know, suppress or keep that fear in control as they’re doing it. I think they’re, they’re still likely
feeling the fear, but they’re able to push, push through it. And a lot of athletes do talk about that idea
of just pushing through it and that being part of the motivation for doing these sports. Yeah. That’s what the ultimate satisfaction, right? Do you see what, what skills does he have
other than these incredible ha, you know, strong hands. Do you, do you see that he has an extra gear
when it comes to fear regulation? Yes, he does. First of all, he’s not crazy. And I think none of these extreme athletes,
extreme sport athletes are crazy because if they would be crazy, they would die. The first thing you want to try and do something
if not skillful enough, and if you don’t know how to handle that fear, that sort of fight
or flight phenomenon, you’re going to die. And in order to be able to survive through
that sport and all of these different activities in that same level, um, of challenge, um,
you need to be extremely experienced. So this red line you were talking about, each
one of these athletes, including Alex Honnold, has this red line that he would not pass,
he would not cross with that specific activity he’s planning on and in the next project
in front of him. That is the reason why Alex Honnold didn’t
climb El Capitan five years ago and he talks about that. He did the climb, um, Half Dome and some other,
which were in terms of, um, not skills, but in terms of technicalities were a little bit
less challenging than El Capitan. So he had to step up the ladder and step up
his game and with the experience and understanding, he kept the same distance from that red line. But that red line, we know kind of start moving
away and away from, from the baseline. Not for him. Again, he always had that same kind of x distance
from that red line. And that’s true for every extreme sport athlete. So we can evolve within our sports and we
can do things which from the outside looks way more experienced, but for us the feeling
inside and then the consequences and then the different hormones in our body from physiological
and endocrinological standpoints is going to be the same. And we talked about it in many different types
of research projects we did, what is the, for instance, the cortisol, which is one of
our stress hormones that our body uses in order to try and withstand all these type
of experiments and withstand these type of challenges, what happens in your body? And we took blood and saliva samples from
BASE jumpers before they jumped obviously at baseline first, and then after they landed
and we saw how it changes within their body and we looked at their heart rate and how
that changed. And you see that very experienced BASE jumpers,
very similar like alpine climbers, that would not change at all. So unlike you, if you’re going to, well, you
obviously skydive so maybe it’s a bit, a little bit different. But people who do not have this experience,
if they’re going to go and try to stand on the top of a cliff and they will look down
they will be like, oh, I don’t want to be there, but someone who does it on a regular
basis, it wouldn’t, wouldn’t move the needle much for him as long as he knows what happens
next and that exactly like we talk about fear of heights when we’ve talked about fear of
heights. Why are people actually afraid of heights
if they’re not going to actually fall? Right? You stand on the top of a skyscraper and you
look down and you know nothing can happen to you and you still, this is kind of uncontrolled
fear. And the theory was that what would happen
if I would jump, like I’m standing there at the top of a skyscraper and I’m looking down
and I know that nothing can happen, like the fence gets to my chest, but what would happen
in my mind theoretically if I’m now going to step up and fall. So you’re future tripping a little bit. Yeah. But for a BASE jumper that’s exactly what
he wants to do. That’s the reason he got up that morning. Right. And the like your science and the and the
and the populations you studied as well, at some point Alex Honnold climbing a rock with
a rope on wasn’t enough. You had to take the rope off in order for
it to matter. Right? So you’re moving that red line? Correct. But he would, every solo climb that you’ve
done, he’d climb with the row before hundreds of times. So he can do it, you know, blindfolded. He knows every move like you’re a check player. He know exactly what he’s about to do. So it’s all about calculated risk. None of these guys is crazy. Again, you cannot survive if you’re crazy
within that sport. Any type of extreme sports. And I’ve lost, you know, more friends than
I can count within that sport and many times they were not crazy. They just, the margin for error was so small,
they just missed it. And it happens in sports all the time. We have to understand that as you discussed,
as you mentioned before, there are some aspects here which are environmental, right? They’re, they’re all about our culture, where
we grew up, what were the opportunities we were presented in life, but some of it is
hereditary and when you look at that baby two years old, as we said statistically if
we’re going to put a hundred babies there, there was going to be, someone’s going to
fly off, right? Because this, they have it in them and we
know that if you break down these different traits and we have the temperament and the
character and the temperament is mostly hereditary, so you have the novelty seeking, the harm
avoidance, all of these different parameters and if someone is low on harm avoidance and
high on novelty seeking, he’s going to fly off. He’s going to enjoy it. Right. Uh, psychologically if you’re going to do
something that’s extremely dangerous there has to be some compensating psychological
mechanism that’s pleasurable. There has to be a euphoria that more than
makes up for the fear. And that’s what you, that’s what you often
find. And if you look at emergency situations, all
the time, and this again is where everywhere, everyday people are thrust into an emergency
situation or anyone during a war. It’s the worst of times and it’s the best
of times. Talk to someone who’s been in war or a hurricane
or, or something like that and there’s something about the, the, the life and death nature
which is euphoric in addition to, uh, in addition to dysphoric. And that’s what we really need to reflect
upon that, that in a life or death situation, life has more meaning basically than if you’re
in an everyday situation. It doesn’t matter much what you do. In fact, there’s research on what kind of
person joins a terrorist organization such as as, um, um, al-Qaida, uh, what kind of
person does that? Might be a middle class person? And the answer is, is meaning, a strong sense
of meaning that you’re participating in something which actually makes a difference as opposed
to an extremely bland, humdrum, you know, suburban let us say, life. So the idea that, that, that these activities
give a sense of, of meaning and consequence to what we’re, we’re doing I think is in part,
part the motivation for it. I don’t know if you’ve been following the
news from Mount Everest in the last couple of weeks. I think we have some footage. It’s been one of the deadliest climbing seasons,
at least 11 perished not because of the weather turning, which is the most fatal, but because
of the crowding. I mean, Sir Edmund Hillary was the first man
up Everest. It was in the fifties and in just a couple
of generations you could put a Starbucks up there, uh, and turn a profit. And I’m sure a lot of this has to do with
equipment and a false sense of security when you have oxygen and those sorts of things
like climbers in the past. When you see that line on Everest as somebody
in this world, well, what does that tell you about, you know, sort of the culture of risk
taking and how it changes according to perception? I actually think it’s a very unique example
because this time it’s not about the people. I don’t think it’s about their risk or their
risk behavior, what they plan on doing. I think it’s about Nepalese government and
permits. There was just too many people there for the
time. Like you could climb perfectly well and get
there and do everything by the book as you planned and plan for that and train for that
for a year or two or more. And on the way down there was just not any,
you know, route, it was all packed, all jammed. So this is a little bit of a different example. It’s yeah, it’s you know, it’s horrifying
and we, so I think by now 11 or even more fatalities during the past couple of weeks,
but it’s not because of the people. Not, not because of a certain, you know, specific
individual it’s because there were too many of them at a certain point at a certain time
and that’s about it. But I guess I’m asking you about the pool
of people willing to spend that money and time and paying to go up and say, I, I, I
climbed Everest. I agree. Yeah, whether that’s something that’s growing
over time. It does, like the participation in every,
every other type of extreme sports. It grows because of the media around it. You mentioned before Red Bull. So you know, nowadays in the past decade being
a Red Bull athlete is like being, you know, like stamped as, yeah, I’m there. There’s a credibility behind that. And back in the day when I started doing these
type of sports, there was not much, there was not really any way to see that, that there
was not any forums, no Facebook, no YouTube, not Google, not anything. Right? So if you would film that, if you would be
even able, able to do that in the right way, you would keep it for yourself and maybe for
your friends. But nowadays with so many people that are,
are so inspired, which is great but by doing so, they don’t really understand what sits
behind that. Because so many times you see only the successes,
you don’t see the failures. Right? You go up on TV and you see someone, you don’t
see that it took him about a hundred times to complete that jump, but you see the double
back flip and you’re like, wow. But then you don’t really go and try it yourself. Um, the ones who do obviously again, Darwinism
wise, they’re the, they are the crazy one who die. But within these types of sports, people don’t
understand how much, how much a of a calculated risk there is behind that. People don’t just go and do things, they plan
on it, they train for it, and they do it and sometimes it takes years to get there. Yeah. Right. Um, Cynthia, you’ve done some work. You know, we talk, we’re talking about Alex
Honnold or even hopeful, uh, Everest mountaineers as people who practice, deliberate, very different
from the Jackass, hold my beer crowd. Right? Uh, and you break it down between what is
it, sensation seeking versus impulsivity. Yeah. So there, there are personality traits that
are often, um, combined. So there’s a, one personality measure that
calls the overarching trait impulsive sensation seeking. But they’re actually also dissociable traits
and, um, the neuroscience behind them has also, um, you know, has shown that they can
be dissociable. And so I decided in my study of two sports
groups. So in this study I looked at a group of high
risk sports participants and a group of low risk sports participants. And I measured their personality. I measured both the impulsivity component
and the sensation seeking component. And I found that high risk sports and low
risk sports, they do not differ in impulsivity and they do not differ from controls in impulsivity. Meaning that when people describe athletes
as reckless, in my opinion, that’s incorrect because as, as Omar said, they’re taking calculated
risks but they’re planning, they’re planning in advance with their training and that is
a component of, of having lower impulsivity. Yes, they are higher in sensation seeking. So in the right hand side of the graph you
can see that the high risk sports participants score higher on sensation seeking than low
risk sports participants. And this is quite consistent, uh, across the
literature. There’s been a number of studies that have
shown this. There’s other components involved, but, um,
consistently high risk sports people do score higher than the general population in sensation
seeking. So they’re careful daredevils, right? Yeah, yeah, exactly. In that way. That’s interesting. Let’s talk about fear, uh, at the heart of
this whole conversation. Abby, this is your, your area in that, I guess
explain how they do brain scans and show people scary photographs like these. Yeah. So a classic study is trying to understand
the neural underpinnings of the, um, capability for experiencing fear. We’ll show people images, uh, in, uh, uh,
an MRI magnet, um, that’s taking pictures of the brain that allows us to track activity
within it. And when most people look at images similar
to these of snakes or, uh, people jumping off of high things or images related to death,
uh, in most people you’ll see increased activity in a network of structures in the brain that
coordinates the experience that feels like fear, um, with the core structure within that
network being the Amygdala, um, which it’s not that the fear lives in the Amygdala, but
the Amygdala is coordinating activity in all the rest of the structures that we need. And it sends signals to the Hypothalamus,
which gins up the fight or flight system, gets, uh, cortisol revved up, um, gets our
muscles tense, all of those body changes. And then also to a really deep structure in
the midbrain called periaqueductal gray, which is responsible for really primitive fear related
behavior. Like, um, you know, if you’re already feeling
a little bit keyed up, you’re watching a horror movie and then somebody taps you on the shoulder
and you jump a mile, that’s the periaqueductal gray you can thank, um, with a little input
from the amygdala. Okay. And then there was also some work, did you
do the work with the rats where it comes to overcoming these fears? Because it’s, it’s, uh, it’s not destiny even
for these critters, right? Right, it’s a big difference between being
fearless and being brave, really. Um, the differences, people who are fearless
are insensitive to the fear, right? They’re rash, they’re reckless. This is the difference we’ve recognized going
back to Aristotle, um, what’s different about being brave is that you are able to overcome
your fear in the service of something that you value more. And there was a really cool study, uh, done
in rats recently by a researcher named Rickenbacker. Um, showing how even a mother rat, rats are
surprisingly good mothers, um, are able to overcome their fear of getting an electric
shock when their pups are with them. And so we know that, uh, when you normally
train a rat to fear getting shocked by, for example, pairing the smell of peppermint with
a foot shock over and over again, it’s a basic fear conditioning study, then the rats will
do what rats always do when they’re frightened, when they smell that peppermint, which is,
they’ll freeze. And that’s periaqueductal gray. And it’s a self-preservative behavior, you
know? That’s a, if you’re a prey species, you
freeze when you’re frightened. But what’s really interesting is that it turns
out that mother rats don’t do that anymore when their pups are in the box with them when
they get this scary odor and they’re able to overcome fear for themselves in order to
protect their pups instead. So if you are okay with anthropomorphizing
rats, you can say that the mother rats in this case are being brave. They’re risking their own safety by overcoming
their desire to freeze in order to help their pups by either huddling over them or trying
to block up the tube that the smell is coming from. That’s so fascinating. Is it the same thing when you hear the stories
about the, the mother lifting the car off her child or something that’s the same charges
of hormones that, that, that help you do these super, super rat feats? Absolutely. Absolutely. So the research I’ve conducted suggests that
altruism in general emerges from the same network of structures that enable us to parent. So the parental care system underlies all
of the care based altruism, and then the altruistic kidney donors that we’ve scanned, um, what
we’ve seen is that when they are presented with images of people who are afraid, um,
we see increased signaling between their Amygdala and their periaqueductal gray. We see, um, that those structures actually
have stronger connections between them than is the case in most people. Um, and that seems to be what allows them
to overcome fear for themselves. And again, they’re not fearless people at
all. They would never describe themselves that
way, but they’re able to overcome fear for themselves when they’re focused on helping
somebody else. And this is universally how they describe
going into surgery. They’re not fearless people, but they never
described feeling afraid going into surgery. They’re just focused on the person that they’re
going to help. Cynthia as you’d mentioned earlier an actual
scan of Alex Honnold’s brain images. We can throw those up there. So Abby this is what happens in his head on
the right being shown those scary photos. Is that, is that it or? That’s right. The amygdala is right in the cross hairs there
within that little red circle. Um, and if you look at a typical person’s
brain in a brain scanner when they’re looking at scary images you’ll see increased activation
in the Amygdala which we can render as a little blob of glowing red, a little sun glowing
in the brain. Um, and when Alex looks at the similar images,
which are admittedly, they’re not the scariest thing that you could present to somebody,
but they do elicit an Amygdala response in most people. Uh, and just nothing in him. The Amygdala is there. It’s just, it’s, it’s saying it’s pretty bored
with the pictures its seeing. I think it’s important to stress that if
you see a difference like that, it doesn’t mean it’s innate or genetic. None of that. I mean, this could well be the experiences,
the training and so on and so forth. So often people think, oh, there’s a difference
in a, in a, in a brain scan like that. Therefore it must be some kind of innate difference
or a genetic difference. But no, it’s not that simple. So it’s not the equivalent of like Michael
Phelps’s lungs or a Tour de France winner’s quadriceps? This could be-
Well, even those are not uh, I mean those are the results of training and so on and
so forth. So I think that, uh, it’s, it’s much more
difficult to disentangle nature versus nurture than, than uh, to see something, to see a
difference like that. Do we agree on that? Almost everything, yeah, everything’s a little
bit of both. I mean, almost every human personality trait,
about half of the variation in that trait can be explained by genetic variance. Pretty typical. Um, and the other half can be explained by
everything else. And usually it’s not the everything else that
most people think about. Um, what’s called shared environmental variance
meaning the things that were, that are the same for every child in a household. What your parents did, the kind of neighborhood
you grew up in, that’s not as predictive as most people think. It’s idiosyncratic experiences, experiences
unique to you that seem to be the next biggest predictor of how you turn out. Right. Let’s talk about a risk in our minds and
our genes. Basically how risk plays a role in evolution. We’ve known since Darwin that it’s, you know,
driven by natural selection. People who survive pass along those genes,
which raises the obvious question that why hasn’t evolution led us to be a bunch of
couch potatoes and not having to take any risks anymore. Um, what, what are your thoughts on, on how
we still have these folks who are not charging the light brigade to save the nation, but
doing it for a sense of just thrill? Well, we know that if you go outside and you
see many species, why do they coexist? It’s because they survive and reproduce in
different ways. And what’s a little more new, we tend to think
of a single species as being homogenous, but no, it turns out that there is diversity within
a single species, even within a population. And those individuals are coexisting because
they’re surviving and reproducing in different ways. So when we studied individual differences
in fish, here’s how we did it. We threw in minnow traps, shiny metal objects,
no food of any kind. These very little pumpkin seed sunfish. First thing that happens is they scatter. And then the next thing that happens is some
of them return and they’re sucked by their curiosity into those traps. And then we remove the traps after 10 minutes
and we caught the fish that did not enter the traps with a seine. And now we had this difference in by virtue
of how we caught them. And then we could study that in the laboratory
or we could mark them and we could put them back in nature. And you know, it’s pretty easy to understand
that if you’re the bold fish, you’re the first to get the worm and you’re the first to
get caught by a fisherman. So that’s the, you grab life by the horns,
sometimes you get gored. And if you hang back, then the bad news is
you don’t maybe eat as much. The good news is you don’t get eaten, not
too hard to understand. And so, and so, um, this is, um, uh, how individual
differences can be maintained. Now, one of the surprises of this research
is that what we use to think of as shyness and boldness actually turns out to be something
else. And that is how much you attend to information
in your environments. And it turns out that some individual, this
is another kind of individual difference, individual difference. Some individuals are inattentive, they just
kind of do their thing and they’re not, you know, we know people like that. And other people and other individuals, uh,
are processing much, much more and the way this is, this was first discovered was they’d
catch birds and they’d put them in aviaries and they’d ask the question, how soon do they
start hopping around and exploring their environment? So some started immediately, others hung back,
that looked like bold and shy, but the ones that were hanging back were actually, they
were just taking it all in and then they could act in a different way. And it turns out, and this is called highly
sensitive people. Uh, so it’s a, it’s definitely an axis of
personality variation. And the way it maps into shyness and baldness
is that if you’re a highly sensitive person, you’re taking all this information in. If that actually results in you know, some
successful way of behaving and you open up and you’re bold, but if you’re overwhelmed
by it, then you retract and you’re shy. And so there’s a complex mapping between your
attentiveness to your environment, how sensitive you are to your environment and whether you
end up basically being a withdrawn person or an extroverted person. That’s how complex it is. Wow. That’s so fascinating. Do you think that, um, if given enough deliberate
training that you can build fear or build bravery in, in, in the human mind? I think that there is a, an innate component
and I think that there will always be individuals who will be too risk averse and, and their
harm avoidance. Um, the, the, the brain centers that control
harm avoidance and govern that are, will be too strong for them to overcome that. Um, I, I agree there is the environmental
component, um, that you, you can’t learn. But I think for some people there’s, there’s
a line that they wouldn’t be able to go over. Does this also apply to like a wanderlust
gene? People who crave new experiences, uh you’re
skeptical on that? You know, so well I study, um, so I study
dopamine. And so when talking about, um, uh, so I’m
not sure if it’s the same language in animal models, but we talk about, um, individuals
having a strong approach system. So, so they’re motivated to approach different
scenarios and um, they tend to have a weaker avoidance system and, um, one is governed
by dopamine, the approach and then, and then the avoidance system is governed, um, by Serotonin. And then there’s the balance between the systems
and, and in studies of sensation seekers or novelty seekers. Um, and, and high risk sports people, they
do tend to show and they’ve done brain imaging studies on sensation, high sensation seekers
compared to low sensation seekers. And they found that they have stronger approach
systems. Um, but it might be more so the weaker avoidance
systems, um, that potentially allow them to, um, push those limits. So when they’re shown that, you know, there’s
one where they did an imaging study and they had them do a gambling task and um, they found
that low sensation seekers had quite strong harm avoidance centers light up during um,
losses and they found that the high sensation seekers, their brain regions that showed,
um, that that govern approach were much more strongly, um, lit up in the functional imaging
scans. I know you set out to compare those with addictive
behaviors to those risk-takers. Do you find a, an overlap that the ones who
when they’re not on the mountain, they need something else? So part, as I said, part of my motivation
for studying this was because a lot of, um, a lot of the sports people that I’ve encountered
had been into, you know, substance use in their, in their early years. But, um, as I, as I started studying high
risk sports people, what I noticed in the literature is no one ever asked the high risk
sports people if they use substances. Um, and because substance use is prevalent
among high sensation seekers. Um, in, in my research on high risk sports
people, I wanted to include a substance use questionnaire because I was looking at genetics
and, and some of the, um, genes, I was looking at were genes that were also implicated in,
um, addiction studies. So I just wanted to make sure I was covering
all bases by including a substance use measure. And what I actually found was, um, my high
risk sports people that actually reported problematic substance use. Um, so, uh, according to a questionnaire,
they scored above a certain threshold for problematic use. I actually found that, uh, they were impulsive. So earlier we mentioned, we talked about how
the sports people that I studied were not impulsive, they’re not reckless, they’re taking
calculated risks. Well, this sub sample, which I call sort of
dual risk takers, they are high risk sports people, but they also regularly use substances. Um, they were impulsive and those potentially
are the people that are taking risks beyond their abilities. Um, perhaps combining substances while using,
while doing the sport. I mean, I, I didn’t study that. I don’t know, but, but I did. Are no longer with us. Pardon? And they’re, they’re the ones that they, they,
they get weeded out. Um, so I, I did find that, um, there’s this,
there’s, there’s a difference between these high risk sports people from, um, the gamblers
and, and the, the substance users in that impulsivity component. Yeah, I think it’s important to emphasize
it in a naturalistic context with humans, risky behaviors are almost always generating
social benefits. Social benefits either add new, new resources,
new territory, fighting, uh, and so, and so it’s really private cost, public gain, uh,
much of the time, and this is what segues I think to such things as cooperation and
altruism, which you wouldn’t think necessarily there’d be a connection. Actually, there probably is because this is
a, in terms of action, not necessarily in terms of motive or, or psychology, but in
terms of the consequences of what you’re doing, risky behaviors are very often, are generating
social benefits at a private cost and that makes it a kind of altruism
Just to show a little bit of where Omer’s motivations come from. He didn’t want to talk about this next set
of pictures we’re going to show you, because that would be, you know, I guess grandstanding
a little bit, but you gotta tell me some stories here. This is you a climbing, well we’ve got you
jumping out of anything that can fly, basically. Yeah. That’s a first ascent in China. They’re just different types of sports that
I enjoy. And I think that most people that do extreme
sports enjoy. Yeah. Um, but as I said, it’s not something you
just go there and all of a sudden do. It’s something that you train for for many,
many years, you know, to be able to do it and enjoy from it. Because if you’re going to do something without
knowing exactly what you’re about to do and how to handle it, I don’t think you’re going
to, you will be able to enjoy it as much because you’re going to be always occupied preoccupied
if you can actually survive that. So in order to be able to do something like
that, you know, jump off a thousand feet smokestack in order to do that and to be sure that you’re
going to do it, and you enjoy it and, and you can actually be open to what you’re going
to do when you are free falling. Actually enjoying the, the seconds of free
falling, right? It’s most people have these sorts of experiences,
let’s say when they drive very fast and they have to stop over the side and they think
they’re going to die, right? Like you had, so you have it for a glimpse. But we can relive these moments if you know
how to get there and actually enjoy that. But as I said, you cannot just get there and
do that. There’s years of experience behind that so
we can actually go in and climb waterfalls, frozen falls or BASE jump. And the reward for you is, when people say
why? I don’t really care what they say. No, I mean just what do you, how do you describe
the reward? What’s the reward that David talks about? I think, I think it’s generalized for most
people. I think that you do, I don’t think, I think
that if someone does it in order to hear what other people say is not there for the right,
for the right reasons. Yeah. And I think, again, these are the people that
probably would not qualify to do it for many, many years. Right. If you do it for the right reasons, many you
do it because you have the right stuff and you know that you can survive it for many
years and you can enjoy that. That’s the only way. Right. And Cynthia, when you ski, I mean, you must
have a red line that is farther out than some peers, but not, but within a, somebody else’s. Right? Uh, yeah. I mean, I, I, I would, I would not consider
myself taking big risks because I’ve been skiing since I was two and, and I’m confident
in my abilities. Um, so I knew, you know, just if I’m jumping
off a cornice and I aim my skis properly, even though there’s a cliff on one side that
I can’t go down, I know I’m going to land on my skis and I know I can land on my skis
and not fall down. Um, so I, I think, yeah, I just, I, it’s just
your confidence in your ability. Um, it has, uh, it plays a huge role and I
also do find, um, I do enjoy pushing my limits to a point where I know it’s within my ability,
but, but I do get some satisfaction out of that. And, and I think that a lot of the athletes
that I’ve spoken with that is one thing that motivates them is, is this drive to, um, push
their limits within that, you know, comfort zone, um, and, and bordering on the edge of
that comfort zone because they achieve great satisfaction from that accomplishment. And I think that is part of what keeps them
going. You had your 10,000 hours, so you felt completely
confident, right? Yeah. There you go. I’d like to address
Well I’d like to address the difference since we have just a, the perfect people to
ask this question to, of the big sex difference that exists. Of course there’s many more male, uh, extreme
sports people than, than, than women. Why? Is that a candidate for an innate difference
or maybe not? So, uh, so please. So we actually studied that. We actually, um, our, uh, one of our last
research projects was looking at female versus male BASE jumpers. And even so there’s a little bit of a cultural
difference there. There is not really any difference in terms
of their wiring. I think they’re exactly the same. And I think that that’s what we see nowadays
with a lot of different types of extreme sports. We see that, I think the, the, the fact that
females lag a little bit behind is only cultural. It’s not physiological, it’s not anatomical. It’s only cultural. Interesting. And I think that within several years, like
we see even in medicine, right, there is more female doctors then than male doctors, right? It just took them time because of the culture
around. But, but now they are completely even and
equal. So when they, when I, when they’ve looked
at these personality traits, um, novelty seeking, sensation seeking in general population, men
do typically score higher than females on these traits. But when I studied athletes, I found that
the females scored on par with the male athletes in the high risk sports. But the interesting thing is, um, in other
studies of non risk sports, as soon as athletes get to an elite level, the females start performing
on par with the males in a lot of these personality traits that are normally male dominant. So whether, you know, these females are I,
you know, exhibiting more mas, so-called masculine traits. Um, yeah, it is,
And what does a hormone like testosterone and have to do with it because in the public
mind, you know, this is like testosterone driven males and stuff like that. So,
So they have looked at testosterone response following, um, well was that one of your,
is that? No, we looked at something else, I think it’s
tied with sex hormones because obviously there would be, they would be differently between
females and males, but when you look at cortisol alpha-amylase they wouldn’t be, and then you
can, you can match it up with a validated questionnaire that look at the different traits,
the psychological traits and see there is not much different. Although testosterone counteracts the effects
of cortisol under some circumstances doesn’t it? Yeah, there, there, there. So there was a study where they did measure
testosterone response in um, high risk sports people and it was a skydiving study. Um, and they did find the females testosterone
response was slightly less than the males, but it was still a significant response. Um, and it was following the, the jump and,
and so they, they did talk about the interaction between, you know, testosterone and cortisol
there. Yeah. We skipped over a graph, talk about these
wingsuit trends as we, uh, as you add new layers of risk. So basically, um, what we can see over here
is that when we look at BASE jumpers, so in the past decade obviously the population overall
grew significantly. Uh, we, when we started looking into BASE
jumping and we did a lot of research around that, there was about 1500 BASE jumpers, you
know, around the world. Um, and it’s, and it’s kind of an easy population
to study because they are very cohesive and you know how to get to them. And once you get into, once you’re, once you
are one of them, and that was that, that way it was easier for me to study them. They were opened up for me. Um, these guys, again because of the media
and, and the X Games and everything else. And the fact that everybody started to see
what they are doing and they were inspired by that, the population grew to around 25,
almost 3000 nowadays. And what happened is that then we start merging
technology into that. So initially when we developed the wingsuit
flying and we’re talking about 1999 where, when the first commercial wingsuit came out
and I was one of the test pilots of this wingsuit, a, there were a lot of different guys. So just to explain that’s the, it looks like
a flying squirrel. Correct. As opposed to a basic jumpsuit. In the previous hundred years, so basically
all through the 1900s, there were about 75 different innovators, um, you know, entrepreneurs
that tried to develop a wingsuit and almost all of them died during that process. Talking about 73 out of 75 or something like
that. The last one was, was a very famous, um, skydiver
from France, Patrick de Gayardon, and he developed a suit that then became the commercial suit
that we used later on. And he died just because of, again, a mistake
of stitching his parachute to the wingsuit. When, when we took that wingsuit out and started
to jump with it, we were basically becoming the test piloting of that new technology. But the technology was not on par with where
we are as pilots. And that’s where, where the fatalities can
from in the beginning. Afterwards we started testing it in, in, in
different, um, wind tunnels and we brought scientists in order to help us to develop
better wing. I mean it’s not only in material, there is
several levels. The, the air comes in from the front, it inflates
that and you get an actual lift like a plane would get. maybe not enough to get a lift and to go up,
but if you get enough speed you can go out for a little bit then keep on going down. Right. The problem was that it was much harder to
control, right? Because when you have such a large wing in
you or where you are in part of the wing, it’s very hard to control that if you’re not,
if you don’t know what you’re doing. And then we start seeing fatalities in the
beginning of the fatalities were relatively low in rate because what we did, we just wanted
to master the flying. So we went to, after we master it, obviously
from, from um, a plane, we jumped off very high cliffs, but all we wanted to do is just
be able to stabilize ourselves in the air and enjoy the flight and land. But once we mastered that, then the whole
field evolved to start doing proximity flying. So now you’re not jumping from a cliff and
getting away from it, now we’re jumping from and getting back to the cliff and try to fly
next to the cliff between the waterfall and the cliff and start getting very close. And this is where the fatalities start to
spike. And what we see in that graph is that in the
past decade we saw more fatality related, more, more wingsuit fatality related jumps
than anything else. And this is where it spikes. And now we’re losing about 30 to 35 guys a
year out of a 3000, you know, um, people population, which is quite high. And as a doctor in this world you must see
these injuries, you must see these fatalities. Has there ever been one that gives you pause
or you always think, oh, I will be better prepared than this guy was? Well with wingsuit there’s not really any
injuries. Uh, it’s mostly, it’s mostly fatalities that
um, the injuries are usually when you land and you hit a rock or you cannot, you cannot
navigate yourself to a very small landing spot. In, in usually in BASE jumping wingsuit flying
the landing area is smaller than you know, the podium we’re on right now. And it’s not that it’s open, right? You have to navigate yourself between different
objects. But I agree that most of these sports in um,
result in significant amount of injuries and as an orthopedic sports and trauma surgeon
I see that a lot. I think that this is not much different in
terms of the actual injury than what I’m going to see with a major car accident that someone
was crushed inside a car. What the fear is here and we talk about it
in our biannual extreme sports conference, when we bring different types of a health
care providers from all around the world to talk only about extreme sports is how do we
bring these guys back, because it’s one thing when you do an ACL reconstruction on a soccer
player, right? Because after he’s done and feeling stable,
you put him with an athletic trainer and you start training and he’s running between the
cone and when he’s feel comfortable enough and you can check him and he’s good isometrically
and whatnot you send him back to play. But if he’s playing, practicing and he’s doesn’t
do well, then you know the, the coach would sideline him. But let’s say that you are a BASE jumper or
a skydiver and you had the shoulder dislocation and I fix your shoulder, and now before you’re
ready, you go up and you jump again. And as you come to open your shoot, your shoulder
is dislocated again, right? Then you are dead. So we know how to take, we need to know how
to take these guys, whether they are a whitewater kayak that needs to know how to flip, the
Eskimo roll, in order to survive or someone that that goes down, let’s say climbs or whatnot
and use a very sterile and mimicking environment in order to show them if they are ready or
not before they go back to do what they do. So if you want to take an, an ice climber
before you go on and send him to ice climb somewhere where there is no out, you want
to send him to the climbing gym and if it’s a kayaker you want to take him to the um,
before he goes down to down the river, you want to take him to the pool and you want
to make sure that you know, he does it hundreds of times and he can actually do that. And if you’re a skydiver, send him to a wind
tunnel and let him be in a wind tunnel for hours and hours and deploy his chute or play
to deploy his chute so next time when he’s actually going there after shoulder dislocation
in a surgery he is actually ready for it and he doesn’t dislocate it again in there. Fascinating stuff. Well, let’s, uh, we’ve been talking a lot
about how risk, individual risk, uh, works its way through. And now let’s kind of switch over to some
of the research these folks have done on helping others. And to do that, we’re going to roll a little
video clip here about a young man who about 10 years ago made headlines, uh, was a renowned
hero both in New York around the country and around the world for just a knee jerk, once
in a lifetime moment that happens on a commute that it could happen to any of us going through
Penn station on any given day. And this was a bit of the news coverage when
it happened. Some people spend a lifetime in show business
waiting for that one great moment, never knowing when or where it might happen. For one performer, it happened this week. Actor Chad Lindsey, who did something remarkable
this week while waiting for the C train at New York’s Penn station. Chad Lindsey jumped onto the New York City
subway tracks and rescued a man who passed out and fell off the platform. It was a moment he’d been unwittingly training
for. His current role is in the off Broadway play,
Casper Houser, in which he picks up a fellow cast member who can’t walk. The train tracks start to shine when the reflected
light of the of the train is headed at you, and I saw that and I was like, okay, we need
to get out of this hole like pronto. I’m a trained dancer and actor. When someone falls, I catch them. You do what your muscles are trained to do. I hopped up out of there, which I didn’t think
I could do, but at the time I was like adrenaline, so I could’ve just been like boing, donk,
I felt like anyway. Two roles in one day, actor and a lifesaver. It’s so simple I mean you just, if you see
somebody trip and fall down, you help them up. You know what I mean? When he isn’t saving strangers from certain
death, Chad Lindsey’s an actor, director, and artist based in New York. He is the co-artistic director of Hook and
Eye Theatre and helms the Mark O’Donnell Theater at the Actors Fund Arts Center in
downtown Brooklyn. Big hand for Chad Lindsey. First of all, before we get into your story,
how many people here, if you think you saw somebody fall onto the subway tracks, would
be the one to jump in after them and help them. There’s a couple of hands. Yeah, Chad, would you have been one with your
hands up if asked that question 10 years ago? Yeah, I don’t know. I had never thought of it when it happened. You know, it didn’t, I was new to New York,
a relatively new New Yorker and I know a little bit about trains and a little bit about how
the subway track bed is organized. So I, I feel like, yeah, I would’ve, you know,
there’s a thing here that’s about your level of competence and knowledge of yourself that,
that I think is, is maybe the, the teachable moment for all of these instincts, which is
that, how can we take this instinct to con, consistently and incrementally improve, right. And move that red line further and further
and turn it into a, you know, a quest for competence among all of us. That the more you know about yourself and
what you’re capable of doing, the more apt you are, the more likely you are to, to jump
in when you’re needed. And maybe there I think is the, is if we’re
looking for a selfless or an altruistic application for, for this kind of thing, it’s that we
can come through, through these instincts toward wild behavior we can come to know ourselves
better and to know our limits. And I think there’s something there that,
that, that might be worth examining. Before we try to vivisect your brain, uh,
take us to that day. What was, what exactly happened? I know you’ve told the story a million times,
but take us back. Well, okay. So I had one of my several jobs, I had to
leave real quickly to go do a reading downtown at a theater and I was standing, waiting,
somewhat preoccupied but not on my phone, which I think is another aspect. You have to make sure you’re good at if you
want to be attentive to what’s happening. Um, and I saw a guy just coming at the track
a little too fast and he sort of stumbled and headlong fell into the tracks and smacked
his head and visibly obviously passed out and was bleeding. And then I, I apparently dropped my backpack. I don’t remember that, but it was there when
I returned. Um, jumped in, got real nervous about legality
for a moment. I was like, do you move someone who might
have a spinal injury? But then I saw the train and was like, yes,
you do. Um, or you’ll have to watch something ugly. So then I grabbed him and put, put the bulk
of his torso up on the thing and two other people helped me, uh, pull him up and then
I jumped out. And then… How long did that take? I don’t know. Uh, I, I think, um, just a couple seconds. You know, I don’t, I didn’t want to lollygag. Um. But it was probably less than a minute total? Yeah. Oh, while I was down there, I told someone
on the thing to alert the authorities and con, I said something, the, apparently I’ve
had secret training. Yeah, I was like alert the authorities. Well, what I read was you said, tell the station
agent, The station agent, yeah. And you’d never use those words ever. Why would you use the station agent? But then you said, you said that afterwards,
the response to others around you, because you got on the next train, you didn’t hang
around to get your medal. You got on the next train? Well, I had a reading, so he, he was, had
regained consciousness and was sitting against a wall and there was a couple cops there. So I was like, train. So I jumped on and the people on the train
saw a guy with blood on his pants and I was white as a sheet and, and I, they gave me
a lot of room and then, uh, somebody said, no, this, this guy just got in there and saved
a dude. And, um, and then one by one I was approached
and there was this like sort of second wave of altruistic behavior as these women took
out, uh, hand wipes and started taking care of the blood on my hands and a nurse came
up and said, I’m a nurse and you shouldn’t smoke a cigarette or drink coffee because
you’re, you’re in shock. I can see it and it wouldn’t be good for you. And, and people were cleaning me up and, in
New York. And then, uh, the way that, um, we were talking
backstage, I guess the way that you get that warm wash when you give that sense of, of,
of just goodness when you give directions to a stranger on the street. Yeah. This is like that experience times a million
and it changed your career path. Well, maybe, I don’t know. I mean, as I look back, so it’s been 10 years
and I’ve got a little bit of perspective on the, on the situation. But then if I went from being predominantly
an actor and odd job kind of guy to, you know, I now work with, uh, formerly homeless people. I, I’ve sort of, all of a sudden, if I look
at my life now, I, I have this, this element in it of altruistic help that I have built
in for better or worse, it’s not easy, but, um, and it makes you wonder if there isn’t
something about the recognition or the warm feeling that you get when you hold a door
or like you said, give someone the right directions, um, that, that, or jump off of a really high
building, that you don’t want to repeat, that you don’t want back again. And like, you know, how can you train that,
um, for the best. How can you train that sort of addiction if
that’s what it is towards socio, you know, societal good I think is the hope. So Abigail, this gets back to your story and
your research, uh, about altruism and people have different motivations for throwing themselves
into danger. Um, it just seemed, it didn’t like, it seems
like he made a deliberate decision, but what did your science, what was the most surprising
thing you discovered about this? Uh, the research that we’ve conducted with
altruistic kidney donors, although we’ve done a little research with people who engaged
in heroic rescues as well, there’s a lot of similarities. Um, we find that people who are very altruistic,
uh, have brains that look the opposite of people who are psychopathic. So people who are psychopathic are, do tend
to be very fearless. Uh, in addition, they tend to be very impulsive. Um, and, uh, one of the reasons is that they
have, the structure in their brain called the Amygdala is smaller than average, and
it’s under reactive and particular to the site of other people’s fear. And this is the really interesting thing about
fear. It’s one of the best things about fear is
knowing what it’s like to feel afraid gives you the ability to empathize with other people’s
fear as well. And people who are psychopathic. Um, one of my favorite quotes is from a colleague
of mine who, uh, was studying psychopathic inmates in a prison in the UK and was showing
them pictures of people’s facial expressions and one of them missed every single fearful
facial expression, he didn’t get a single one, right. Looks at a really vivid picture of fear and
he’s like, you know, I don’t know what that expression is called, but I know that’s what
people look like right before you stab them. So like, yeah, I’ve seen that face. I even can tell you when I’ve seen that face. But I don’t know like what is that feeling? Right? And so you need to be able to empathize with
other, you need to be able to feel fear yourself, right? In order to empathize with it in other people. And one of the reasons that people who are
psychopathic it seems can’t do that, is because they don’t have strong feelings of fear themselves
because their amygdala is too small and under reactive. And what we find is that people who are altruistic
kidney donors look the opposite. So they’re not fearless at all. Their amygdalas are more reactive to the sight
of other people’s fear and they’re larger than average, and they’re better at picking
up on when other people are afraid. And we think that this is the reason that
they’re driven to help other people is because they can understand what that feeling of fear
feels like. And so they’re motivated to help. And it sounds like you had that empathy piece
in you, you saw this man… Well I had my amygdala but I left my periaqueductal
gray at the office, so I was very calm and able to act. Uh David, you wrote a book called Does Altruism
Exist? Culture, Genes and the Welfare of Others. And it makes sense that animals will risk
their lives to save their children and keep the, keep the gene pool going, but how does
that explain what he did, helping a stranger? Yeah. So altruism, I think that some, there’s so
much to say about this and one thing that you brought up uh, backstage and, and again
here is that in our particular culture, it’s so dominated by the idea that everything is
a form of self interest. We’re dumbfounded by the very concept of
altruism, dumbfounds us because we’ve been told again and again and again that we are
homo economicus, everything we do is driven by self interest, which is not the case. When we start to think about individual differences
from an evolutionary perspective and that, and that these differences primarily are,
are, are succeeding in different ways, then not only is there a niche for selfishness,
including a niche for psycho, psychopathy, there is even a theory that, uh, that there
is something called primary psychopaths, just born that way, not caused by the environment. And this is a successful social strategy,
but only at a very low frequency. And in a world of cooperators and the primary
psychopath, because they’re so rare actually catches everyone unaware. But as soon as they would increase to a certain
frequency, then the vigilance of other people would kick in. And so basically that’s why they’re as rare
as they are, they’re not zero, they’re like 3% or 5%, but for the rest of us, then the
good news for selfishness is that you get to exploit altruism. The bad news is you get excluded and punished. If you’re an altruist, the good news is you
get exploited. But the bad news is, is that you, if you can
cluster, if you can find the company of our other altruists then together as groups of
altruism, then you can robustly out-compete selfish individuals. So in fact, it’s no puzzle at all to explain
this kind of individual difference in say why an empathetic person can succeed and fail
and the converse. So this is another axis of individual difference
that exists and, and, and who succeeds and the degree to which they succeed depends very
much on how we structure our social environments. If we structure our social environments the
right way, then we could really cause altruism and empathy to be, uh, the most successful
strategy. And of course, selfishness won’t entirely
go away, but it will be, it will be pretty successfully suppressed. And that’s the kind of groups we want to have. I want to live in a city full of Chads. I don’t know about you. Well, there’s that, there’s this like tendency
to think of that as that of a sort of soft society of like this of, of it not having
the guts and the, and the, but it isn’t and there is this competency that is required
for true altruism. And I don’t want to lose that, that, you know,
and not just so that I don’t seem like the softer side but, but like you, you know, it
would, it wouldn’t be good just because everyone would be helping everybody. It would be good because everyone would be
rising to their most competent level. You know, everyone would be the, the expectation
wouldn’t be, maybe not that you, uh, are a standout on the top level, but that everyone
rises to their level of competency. And I think that kind of an altruistic society
would be the one toward which we should really aim. I, you know, what do I know. Nothing, nothing can detract from, from what
you did. But I think the fact that you were in your
theater life was practicing picking up somebody again and again is significant. And if you look at marine training, basic
military training, what you find is you take, you know, pretty much just an average sample
of people and training them to do this kinds of thing so that actually they don’t have
to think, you they don’t have to think because they’ve done it so many times and in the situation
they do it because that’s what they’ve been trained to do. And they’ve also gotten such a feeling of
devotion. It is not the case that we only help our offspring
and our genetic relatives. The world is full of situations in which we
help members of our group, basically uh, perceived to be members of our group. And we can be as sacrificial for them as we
can for our own kin. So, so that’s another sort of fallacy that
we’re selfish except we help our genetic relatives. No, no, it’s, it’s much more expansive than
that. Yeah. That’s disproven every day. I did a story years ago on uh, the Pentagon’s,
uh, basic training model for soldiers and after, in World War II, when they did a survey,
an alarming amount of first time infantry men didn’t shoot back in their first battle
and they realized as they broke it down that fighting for Uncle Sam or God and country
breaks down in that then that moment of fire and that’s when they started giving you a
battle buddy in basic training and it’s you and us. And if, and if I do something, if I screw
up in basic training, I have to dig a grave for you, write a letter to your mom and that
then by the time hit got to Vietnam and beyond that rate of, of non-fire in that first thing
drastically changed, It’s the connection. And I want to say something else about psychopathy
that it is just, it’s just the fact of our species that not only are we so good at within
group cooperation, but so often that’s directed hostily to other groups and so to be inhumane
towards other groups is as natural for us as to be humane to members of our own groups. And what that means is, as I like to put,
it all of us are, are facultative psychopaths. It’s within the human repertoire of almost
all of us, that if we have someone that we truly regard as an enemy, then we, we dehumanize
them and we call them by other names, animal names, cockroaches, vermin, and we can actually
get ourselves into a psychological state where we can do terrible things to those people
and not feel we turned off our empathy towards them. And so that’s part of the repertoire of almost
all of us and we need to take that very seriously. Very good point. We are out of time now, but I want to give
a hardy thanks to our entire panel for their time and wisdom.

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